Novella Review - The Blue Fox by Sjon
The Blue Fox
by Sjon, 2004, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, 117 pages.
TLDR: 5 out of 5 for a brief but poetic and thought-provoking book.
The Blue Fox is told in four parts:
January 9-11, 1883
The night was cold and of the longer variety.
The Blue Fox is a short little novella set in Iceland in 1883. The story begins on January 9th in the Icelandic wilderness with a man hunting a blue fox. This section is told rather poetically, and paints a picture of a bleak landscape of sky and snow with the occasional birds. The blue fox blends into the rocks. It seems to sense the man is hunting it. Eventually, the man spots the fox and fired his gun.
January 8-9, 1883
The world opens its good eye a crack. A ptarmigan belches. The streams trickle under their glazing of ice, dreaming of spring, when they'll swell to life-threatening force. Smoke curls up from mounds of snow here and there on the mountainsides - these are their farms. Everything here is a uniform blue, apart from the glitter of the tops. It is winter in the Dale.
In the second part we come back to the days before the fox hunt. A funeral is being planned for Abba, a woman with Down's syndrome, recently deceased. She has been rejected by her community; the reverend, Baldur, refused to let her attend mass because her off-key singing gets in the way of other's connection with God. But she had one redeemer in Fridrik, a man from away who had come to settle the estate of his dead relatives, but stayed to take care of Abba. Back-story is revealed more prosaically, and in preparing Abba's coffin, he holds something back from the Reverend, saving it for Abba.
January 11-17, 1883
The gunpowder crack shouts: "HEAR THE MAN!" The vixen is thrown up in the air with a pathetic whine.
We catch up again to the hunter in the third part, who is revealed to be Reverend Baldur. He has shot the fox, but in doing so awakens the mountain. He is caught in an avalanche and, his body partly torn and broken, is buried in a snow cave - trapped. He reflects a little on his life, but a he deteriorates he begins to hallucinate. Or does he? The fox awakens and licks the lead shot from its wounds, spitting them out. The two then converse, discussing in part a debate on the detriments of Electricity which Baldur would now be having were he not now trapped in this cave, among other things. He is transformed by the encounter and, losing his manhood, escapes into a new world.
March 23, 1883
Forgive me for replying so late to your last letter, but various things have happened in this part of the world since New Year's. They would not be thought particularly newsworthy in your world, but they are considered quite something here: a woman died and a man was lost.
The book closes with a brief letter from Fridrik to a friend, in the course of which loose ends are tied, and some hidden truths are revealed.
The Blue Fox is a fable and layered with meaning. The translation is lovely, though it probably can't quite capture the original sound of the book. I was thoroughly charmed when I put it down, but also haunted, and a little sad. This is a story of tragedy and transformation. It draws deeply on Icelandic folklore, and a little after-reading does wonders to bring it all home. For example, the idea of a person changing into an animal features in other works by Sjon - it signifies a victory of nature, which Sjon believes is inevitable.
Furthermore, the Icelandic name for the novel is Skugga-Baldur, which means Shadow Baldur. Skugga-Baldur is the blue fox, and turning to the wonderful Museum of Hidden Things by Angrimmur Sigurdsson, we find this entry:
A skuggabaldur has a cat for a father and a fox for a mother. They are no less a menace than foxes or other beasts that sorcerers send to kill the livestock of others. Guns are of no use against them. One time, a skuggabaldur who had done much harm to sheep in the county of Húnavatnssýsla was cornered in a hole and killed by a flock of men. As it was stabbed, the skuggabaldur uttered: “Tell the cat at Bollastaðir that skuggabaldur was stabbed today in the ravine.” Those present found this highly peculiar. Later that day, the man who killed the skuggabaldur came to Bollastaðir to stay the night there. That evening, he recounted the tale as he lay on his bed. An old tomcat sat on a crossbeam. But when the man recited the words spoken by the skuggabaldur, the cat leaped on him and fastened its claws and teeth into his neck. The cat could not be removed until its head had been cut off, but by then the man was dead.
Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýri I, p. 610.
There is meaning in this book - and like something buried under the ice you can see it - or at least see that it's there even if you can't quite make out what it is. But with a little work - or maybe an axe - you can dig it out. Rather than tell you what I found, I give you my axe. So go forth and read the book for yourself. Let me know what you dig up, and then we'll compare notes. 5 out of 5 for me.